Authors: Giovanni Verga

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Italian novelist

September 2, 1840

Catania, The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (now in Sicily, Italy)

January 27, 1922

Catania, Sicily, Italy


Widely considered the greatest Italian novelist after Alessandro Manzoni, Giovanni Verga was born in Catania, Sicily, in 1840, of a family supposed to have come from Aragon in the thirteenth century. The Vergas were a family of patriots. The grandfather was an underground fighter for independence and a deputy to the first Sicilian parliament in 1812. During Giovanni’s boyhood, his mother encouraged him to read. Although he gave her credit for his decision at the age of fifteen to become a novelist, biographers point out that his teacher Pietro Abato wrote poems and novels and assigned classwork that caused the young student to write a six-hundred-page novel about George Washington and the American Revolution. Fortunately, Verga knew more about the subjects of his later fiction.

Giovanni Verga

(Library of Congress)

Instead of entering the university in 1860, he persuaded his father to let him use the money to publish another manuscript he had completed in four volumes—I carbonari della montagna, concerning the adventures of his grandfather. During the next fifteen years Verga lived in Florence and Milan. In these cities, under the influence of the French writers, he wrote passable novels of middle-class life, among them the sentimental Sparrow: The Story of a Songbird. In Milan he described adultery in high society in Eva and Tigre reale.

From this distance Verga could look back on his childhood home and draw upon his impressions of Sicilian life. He scorned being classified. When some found in him the masked pity and underlying pessimism of a Thomas Hardy and others called him a supporter of Verism, with its anti-Romanticist reaction, he retorted that “works of art may be born of any-ism. The main thing is for it to be born.”

The years from 1878 to 1880, after he returned to Milan following the death of his favorite sister in Sicily, marked the turning point in his career. His renewed interest in the Sicilian peasants and fishermen as subjects of art was shown in the collection of short stories that contained “Cavalleria Rusticana,” a tale of primitive passion and violence that he was to dramatize in 1884 and then use as the libretto for an opera. His greatest fame came from The House by the Medlar Tree, a novel dealing with Sicilian fishermen defeated in their struggle for existence, with their town as the real protagonist. Verga’s hometown, under the disguise of Trezza, also figured in his last great novel, Mastro-don Gesualdo, which tells of the downfall of a proud, ambitious peasant.

The foreword to The House by the Medlar Tree had announced Verga’s intent to write a Sicilian comedie humaine that would show “the slow, inevitable flow of the rivers of social life.” Writing was hard for him, though, and during the last twenty years of his life spent in his native town in southern Sicily he wrote and published little. He died at Catania on January 27, 1922.

The style of Verga’s writing, mentioned by all critics, grew from his admiration for a moving story by a sea captain that he read when young and which appealed to him in spite of its colloquial and illiterate style. Although an aristocrat, Verga tried to make his own writing echo the speech of simple peasants. For most readers the wealth of detail and the keen observation of the life and customs of the lower class give his novels of southern Italy their greatest appeal. D. H. Lawrence was moved to translate Mastro-don Gesualdo and two volumes of short stories in order to give pleasure to readers ignorant of Italian.

Author Works Long Fiction: Amore e patria, 1857 I carbonari della montagna, 1861-1862 Sulle lagune, 1863 (serial), 1975 (book) Una peccatrice, 1866 (A Mortal Sin, 1995) Storia di una capinera, 1871 (Sparrow: The Story of a Songbird, 1994) Eva, 1873 Eros, 1874 Tigre reale, 1875 I malavoglia, 1881 (partial translation as The House by the Medlar Tree, 1890, 1953; complete translation, 1964) Il marito di Elena, 1882 Mastro-don Gesualdo, 1889 (English translation, 1893, 1923) Short Fiction: Primavera ed altri racconti, 1876 Vita dei campi, 1880 (Under the Shadow of Etna, 1896) Novelle rusticane, 1883 (Little Novels of Sicily, 1925) Per le vie, 1883 Vagabondaggio, 1887 I ricordi del capitano D’Arce, 1891 Don Candeloro e C’., 1894 Dal tuo al mio, 1905 (adaptation of his play) Cavalleria Rusticana, and Other Stories, 1926 The She-Wolf, and Other Stories, 1958 Drama: Rose caduche, wr. 1873-1875, pb. 1928 Cavalleria rusticana, pr., pb. 1884 (adaptation of his short story; Cavalleria Rusticana: Nine Scenes from the Life of the People, 1893) In portineria, pb. 1884 (adaptation of his short story “Il canario del N. 15”) La lupa, pr., pb. 1896 (adaptation of his short story) La caccia al lupo, pr. 1901 (adaptation of his short story; The Wolf Hunt, 1921) La caccia alla volpe, pr. 1901 Dal tuo al mio, pr. 1903 Teatro, pb. 1912 Nonfiction: Lettere al suo traduttore, 1954 Lettere a Dina, 1962, 1971 Lettere a Luigi Capuana, 1975 Bibliography Adams, Robert Martin. “The Godfather’s Grandfather.” The New York Review of Books 31 (December 20, 1984): 46-49. A discussion of Verga’s works, including The She-Wolf and Other Stories; notes that his reputation stems from the sparse, realistic stories of Sicilian peasants that he wrote in the 1880’s; claims that Verga’s haunting studies of the destructive power of sex and money retain much of their impact. Alexander, Foscarina. The Aspiration Toward a Lost Natural Harmony in the Work of Three Italian Writers: Leopardi, Verga, and Moravia. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1990. Provides biographical notes and bibliography. Bergin, Thomas Goddard. Giovanni Verga. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1931. A well-organized study that traces a definite line of development from Verga’s first published work to his last. Includes a useful bibliography and an informative commentary on Verga’s style. Cecchetti, Giovanni. Giovanni Verga. Boston: Twayne, 1978. An extensive study on Giovanni Verga and his work. Provides an overview of the most complex characteristics of the author. Cecchetti, Giovanni. Introduction to The She-Wolf and Other Stories, by Giovanni Verga. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958. This volume contains the best of Verga’s short fiction available in translation. The book is divided in two parts, with selections of stories from Verga’s early and late period. Cechetti emphasizes that this translation was made “as literal as possible” in order to “render the spirit as well as the letter of the original.” The translator has made every effort to “convey Verga’s style and the rhythm of his sentences.” Kalasky, Drew, ed. Short Story Criticism: Excerpts from Criticism of the Works of Short Fiction Writers. Vol. 21. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1996. A thoughtful collection of criticism of works by Verga, Jean Rhys, William Sansom, William Saroyan, and others. Lane, Eric. Introduction to Short Sicilian Novels, by Giovanni Verga, translated by D. H. Lawrence. London: Daedalus Books, 1984. Lane’s introduction provides the reader with an accurate historical overview and with perspicacious critical observations. The three-page chronology proves to be useful and informative and one of the best ever compiled on Verga. Lawrence’s translation is by far the bestknown and can be considered a commendable attempt to render Verga into English. Lucente, Gregory. “The Ideology of Form in Verga’s ‘La Lupa’: Realism, Myth, and the Passion of Control.” Modern Language Notes 95 (1980): 105-138. Lucente argues that the interaction of realistic and mythic structures in “She Wolf” determines its logic; contends that within the social world of the story, the basic opposition of passion and control (irrational/rational, nature/culture, libido/superego) is pushed to a transcendent realm in terms of pure expression and absolute repression. Patruno, Nicholas. Language in Giovanni Verga’s Early Novels. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977. An excellent study that examines, analyzes, and determines the linguistic norm of the early works of Giovanni Verga, namely Una peccatrice, Eva, Tigre reale, and Eros. Particular attention is given to Verga’s Florentine period, between 1866 and 1875. This work comprises a historical introduction and an explanation of phonology and lexicon used by Verga in his early novels.

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